Sunday, May 22, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

The accepted critical thinking on ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is that:

1. It’s the same old “battle for Erik Lenscherr’s soul” story pace ‘First Class’ and ‘Days of Future Past’;

2. The Auschwitz bit is really tasteless;

3. The Quicksilver set piece is merely a reprise of the one in ‘Days of Future Past’;

4. Too many characters are thrust into one movie without development;

5. The finale is sprawling and incoherent.

Maybe I saw a totally different cut of the film, but I enjoyed the hell out of ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. Granted, it might not have the sharp stylishness of ‘First Class’ (which I still regard as a Bond movie with mutants) or the timeline-jinking audacity of ‘Days of Future Past (which I still consider a horribly clunky title); nor is it as keyed into its period setting as those two. But it develops the themes of family, mistrust, politics and absolute power present in the preceding instalments; it brings Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the new timeline in fine style; and it turns its mutants vs. mutants storyline into a commentary on political manipulation, menticide and man’s inhumanity to man. In this respect, just as ‘Days of Future Past’ earned itself major kudos for obliterating the fuck-awful ‘Last Stand’ from the chronology, ‘Apocalypse’ assimilates everything ‘Last Stand’ tries to be and does the job properly.

Only the mainstream reviewers would have you think otherwise, so in lieu of the more traditional Agitation review, let’s have a look at that quintet of critical carping and subject each item to a validity test:

1. The Professor X (James McAvoy)/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) conflict is the dynamic upon which the franchise is founded. It’s like Bond/Blofeld or Batman/the Joker, and for my money the new X-Men timeline ups the ante on the conflict by grounding it not in the differences between Professor X and Magneto but the battered and compromised but still salvageable friendship between Charles and Erik. Throwing all of that away just to have Magneto as an all-purpose villain would be akin to flushing the crux of the franchise’s human drama down the shitter;

2. Yes it is, but this is the third film that explicitly references Auschwitz and (a) the sequence is shorter than in ‘X-Men’ or ‘First Class’; (b) nobody carped about using the Final Solution as a plot device in those two films; and (c) it’s where Magneto’s powers and his anger were forged so of course it’s where Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) would take Magneto to ensure his complicity;

3. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) having a big set piece where time seems to slow down as he casually moves people and objects across a spatially intense chess board is basically what Quicksilver fucking does and having him in the movie and not giving him that moment would be like having Blofeld in a Bond movie and not giving him a crack at world domination, or not letting Inspector Morse have a pint while he listens to some Wagner. Or not letting Inspector Regan clobber a suspect. Or not letting Scottie beam anybody up. You’d be missing the fucking point. Besides, the context, logistics and outcome of Quicksilver’s race against time are drastically different from ‘Days of Future Past’.

4. True to a degree, with Storm (Alexandra Shipp) locked into a narrative arc requiring a last reel volte face that never quite seems earned and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) given some visually iconic moments but criminally underused; but the same can be said of ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and again nobody seemed to complain about the overstuffed and – let’s be honest – unsuspenseful airport showdown.

5. No more so than any finale in any superhero movie ever. In fact, it didn’t seem to drag on anywhere near as long as the ‘Hulk’ finale (in which I zoned out as two screensavers threw ever larger objects at which other), the ‘Age of Ultron’ slugfest or the double denouement of ‘Batman vs Superman’. In fact, I’d say that ‘Apocalypse’ is the paciest of this year’s triptych of two-and-a-half hour comic book adaptations. (Assuming that neither ‘Suicide Squad’ or ‘Doctor Strange’ will be grasping for such epic running times.)

In addition to the above, factor in Jennifer Lawrence finally making Mystique her own, stepping out of the shadows of both Magneto in terms of the character and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos in terms of performance; Fassbender nailing a squirmily inevitable moment where Magneto, trying to live a normal life, is pushed back onto a vengeful and destructive path; a Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) cameo that gives us the character as a vessel of pure animalistic rage; CGI that serves the story rather than swamping it; and a genuinely chilling scene, scored to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, where Apocalypse prompts a simultaneous launch into space of all nuclear missiles.

All things considered, it’s only the foul-mouthed and fourth-wall-breaking loveability of ‘Deadpool’ that’s stopping me from proclaiming this as the best superhero movie of the year. Sorry, Cap.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

John le Carré hasn’t done badly in terms of his work being adapted. Unlike, say, James Ellroy who has one classic (‘L.A. Confidential’), one damn good film (‘Cop’, a fairly loose take on his early novel ‘Blood on the Moon’) and two total misfires (‘Brown’s Requiem’ and ‘The Black Dahlia’). Or Len Deighton, who has the first two Harry Palmer films (‘The Ipcress File’ and ‘Funeral in Berlin’) and the TV adaptation ‘Game, Set and Match’ to be proud of, and terrible versions of ‘Spy Story’ and ‘Only When I Larf’ (itself a particularly weak novel).

Le Carré, however, has three bona fide classic big screen treatments: ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, ‘The Constant Gardener’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and four pitch-perfect serials for television: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘Smiley’s People’, ‘A Perfect Spy’ and ‘The Night Manager’. Even the second division of le Carré adaptations – ‘The Looking Glass War’, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, ‘The Tailor of Panama’, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ – are only second division because of just how damned good the top tier titles are. In fact, there’s only really Fred Schepisi’s misjudged take on ‘The Russia House’ and a couple of pedestrian adaptation of the early novels that let the side down.

‘Our Kind of Traitor’ slots solidly into this second tier, and it’s a damned shame because it could so easily have been a masterpiece. The plot – Russian mafia; money-laundering; political corruption; banking as the legitimate face of multi-billion pound criminality – is as timely as when the novel was published six years ago. The script was by Hossein Amini, a confident adapter of literary works (‘The Wings of the Dove’, ‘The Four Feathers’, ‘The Two Faces of January’). The cast is a publicist’s dream: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis and Naomi Harris.

The problems start with the choice of director. Susanna White has notched up an impressive small screen CV, helming episodes of ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Masters of Sex’ and ‘Billions’, but directing for TV and directing for film are vastly different disciplines, and White’s only other big screen outing was ‘Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang’. Not exactly a showreel for a dark, cynical espionage drama. And speaking of showreels, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is visual attention-seeking at its worst, all surface sheen and artsy fascination with reflection and distortion – which might have suited one of le Carré’s Cold War opuses but just gets in the way here. ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is concerned with massive levels of corruption, ruthless oligarchies and the human cost of a family at risk. The film cries out for focus, for precisely rendered details, for a foregrounding of fieldcraft and an absolute exposition of what’s at stake. Instead, Dod Mantle assembles what increasingly looks like a “for your consideration” Oscar campaign.

Amini’s script finds a narrative throughline which belies the complexities of le Carré’s novel – no mean feat: there’s a reason why his books often lend themselves better to the long form of a television series – but his flair for nuance and the human element needs to be underpinned by a sense of urgency for the story to work, and neither the direction or editing provide this. Case in point: late in the game, a number of characters find themselves holed up in a safe house in the middle of nowhere; one of them makes an ill-advised decision which leads a team of assassins to their location. The resulting shoot out is filtered through the perspective of someone who’s holding a gun for the first time, hiding in a cellar, and torn between staying put or going outside, protecting his charges or determining whether those charged with protecting him are even still in the game. His cognizance of what is happening boils down to offscreen gunshots, heavily suggestive silences and occasional voices in a foreign language. The scene should be razor-wire tense; sweatily claustrophobic. Done by Hitchcock, or Argento at his best, it would be nerve-shredding; almost unbearable. Hell, Tarantino pulled this kind of thing off with aplomb in the opening section of ‘Inglourious Basterds’. In the hands of White and her two editors, it’s merely ho-hum.

Fortunately, White seems to invest more in her direction of actors. Granted, McGregor is one of those performers who does one specific thing very well – in his case, a boyish, slightly sheepish persona – but that one thing suits the character well enough. Harris takes an underwritten role and emerges with a fully rounded performance – she really is one of the best actresses around at the moment and mainstream cinema still hasn’t woken up to that fact. Lewis makes the wise decision to understate, playing his scheming spymaster as a man who has spent his entire career wearing a poker face. Even in two slightly out-of-character scenes – an impassioned plea to his governmental bosses who would rather he didn’t pursue one particular lead any further; and a deliberate taunt to a long-standing nemesis – the emotional imperative behind his machinations only barely shows. In fact, Lewis risks appearing bland in his characterisation and it’s perhaps not till the very last scene that his gamble plays off.

Skarsgård aces it as mob accountant Dima, a man whose time is running out as a new cabal of oligarchs viciously dispose of all traces of the old guard in order to present a shiny new vision of capitalist Russia for the benefit of UK investors. It’s a deliberately big, rambunctious performance, Dima stomping across the screen like a bear of a man, his body language a symphony in expressive gestures, his colloquy making poetry of the vulgar. Then, incrementally, Skarsgård reveals the cracks in the mask, the fear behind the flamboyance, the desperation to survive and to protect his family. It should be no surprise to anyone that Skarsgård is this good – but the real surprise that ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ has up its sleeve is Saskia Reeves as his long-suffering but nobly stoic wife: a nothing role on paper – indeed, virtually wordless – but one that she imbues with a humanity that is at the same time rigidly unsentimental and utterly poignant. Every time she’s on screen, it’s a searing glimpse of the masterpiece the film could have been.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

With massive tentpole movies locked into extremely specific release dates way ahead of their actual releases, 2016 was always going to be the Summer of Superheroes Twatting Other Superheroes: ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. Hell, let’s call it Summer of the Semi-Colon by way of an alias.

‘B vs S’ was first out of the traps and got the kind of critical drubbing last seen aimed at ‘The Lone Ranger’ (and like that movie, ‘B vs S’ – while no classic – turned out better than anyone gave it credit for), and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’, which opens in the UK tomorrow, is already being submerged by a wave of negative reviews.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ was always going to emerge victorious. Unlike the rushed attempt to springboard a two-part Justice League movie after just ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘B vs S’, and unlike the all-of-the-place quality control of the ‘X-Men’ franchise and the narrative shell-game of the timelines (Deadpool’s piss-taking line in his own magnificently meta solo movie is a spot-on bit of parody), Marvel have developed their stable of icons and villains over a decade and a dozen movies. Nothing in ‘Civil War’ feels rushed or shoe-horned in. The MCU’s timelines and nexus points have been so carefully mapped out that ‘Civil War’ variously functions as: the conclusion to the Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes arc that links ‘The First Avenger’ and ‘Winter Soldier’; a de facto ‘Age of Ultron’ sequel (only sans Hulk and Thor); a passing on of the baton from Peggy Carter to Sharon Carter (a.k.a. Agent 13 – and kudos to all concerned for giving Emily Vancamp more to do this time round); ‘Iron Man 4: Let’s Give Tony Stark’s Ego Another Kicking’; a showreel for ‘Black Panther’; and a teaser trailer for ‘Spider-Man: Hey, Kids, We’ve Got the Rights Back and This Time it Won’t be an Andrew Garfield Suck-Fest, Honest’.

In other words, there’s a lot going on in ‘Civil War’. The opening mini-movie (redolent of a James Bond pre-credits adventure) has the team intercepting some desperados out to get their filthy paws on a biological weapon. One of these desperados is Crossbones (Frank Grillo), Cap (Chris Evans)’s second division nemesis from ‘Winter Soldier’, and he almost gets the drop on our square-jawed hero. Enter Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who takes care of business but at the cost of an entire building and some civilian casualties.

This debacle coming so soon after the city-wide destruction of ‘Age of Ultron’, the Avengers are hauled up before a committee (making ‘Civil War’ the second major superhero movie, after ‘B vs S’, to steal a plot point from ‘The Incredibles’) and it is impressed upon them that if they want to continue saving the world, they’d better agree to some checks and measure PDQ. Because nothing says “thank you for saving the world” more than grey-suited bureaucracy.

At this point, ‘Civil War’ makes the first of a couple of wobbles – neither are franchise-disruptingly serious, but they’re still annoying. Cap’s reticence to accede to the whims of politicians is understandable given the political conspiracy shenanigans he got caught up in the middle of in ‘Winter Soldier’. However, Stark (Robert Downey Jnr)’s volte face from supremely arrogant twat who was basically the architect of everything bad that happened in ‘Age of Ultron’ to bleeding-heart/survivor’s-guilt-orphan-boy/ascendee-to-moral-high-ground comes off as a character arc too far; it’s founded on just one scene – and no matter how good Alfre Woodward is as the voice of conscience, I just don’t buy Stark’s tunnel-vision Messianic certainty crumbling based on just this one encounter. Indeed, something happens to War Machine (Don Cheadle) late in the game that, if the scripters had found a way to stage it at the outset, would have pushed Stark down the required narrative avenue a lot of convincingly.

The fact remains, though, that this is ‘Cap vs Iron Man’ and the conflict needed to be established pretty quickly. It’s compounded, effectively enough, by a bombing that disrupts the signing of the accord and for which one B. Barnes Esq is in the frame. Only Cap won’t give up on his old buddy and goes rogue in order to find out the truth of the matter. This section, Cap teaming up with Sharon Carter (and a potential romance simmering away), while one B. Panther Esq (the effortlessly charismatic Chadwick Boseman – bring on the guy’s solo movie) stalks Bucky, is easily the best part of the film.

Soon enough, though, loyalties are tested and sides are taken and it’s time for the big airport smackdown – and ‘Civil War’ takes its second wobble. The sequence is a grandslam piece of showboating which is (a) utterly devoid of narrative tension – after all, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) has been plotting away in the background so it’s no surprise that Bucky will turn out to be innocent(ish) and the revelations about the real villain of the piece reserved for the final act; and (b) simply too top heavy. If ‘Civil War’ is one green monster from the id and one Nordic god short of being an actual Avengers film, then it overcompensates for their absence by throwing everyone else into the mix. When the warring factions square off against each for fifteen minutes of action, a few sardonically humorous character beats and about a gazillion dollars of special effects, the viewer is presented with – on screen at the same time – Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, shockingly short-changed by the script), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant Man (Paul Rudd), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Bucky Barnes and Black Panther. That’s twelve iconic characters having a brawl. For fifteen minutes. During which Ant Man makes buses and planes and even himself very small and/or very big. For the most part, the scene is fast, frothy and funny (“are we still friends?” as former partners trade punches; Spider-Man being reminded that fighting doesn’t usually involve so much talk), but it never escapes the fact that it’s so top-heavy the bottom of the screen practically screams for an RSJ to shore it up.

Thankfully, the film continues for another half hour and gets its groove back on (mostly: there’s one horrible moment that’s written in purely to stoke up Stark’s hatred for Bucky, and the way it’s incorporated sucks donkey balls), moving towards a finale that doesn’t actually require entire postcode areas to get blown up or mansion-sized gunships drop from the sky.

As ‘Winter Soldier’ debated the legitimacy of control, ‘Civil War’ questions what happens with it. The script stacks things in a certain someone’s favour, and does so in such a way as to absolve them of any and all thorny j’accuses. There’s a similar sense of cop-out as regards the politics of piece, which don’t make a lot of sense when you subject them to even the slightest critical scrutiny. Nonetheless, when it does work, it works brilliantly. Its best moments are, by turns, exciting, flamboyant and intense. ‘Civil War’ is, like the previous Captain America films, a superhero movie that’s actually about something; and it gets to play around with big themes without hunkering down in a mire of crushing joylessness a la ‘B vs S’.

The thorn in its side – arguably the thorn in every other superhero movie’s side – is ‘Deadpool’. In a way that no example of its ilk has done in recent years (bar, notably, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), ‘Deadpool’ allowed the superhero movie to be fun: big, dumb, adult-orientated fun. How the next slate of Marvel offerings shape up remains to be seen, likewise whether ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is as bad as early reviews suggest. But it could be that ‘Deadpool’ was either the death knell or the wake up call for the superhero genre. They say that a week is a long time in politics, and we’ve still got a ways to go until ‘The Infinity Wars’.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s career has been turbulent and less than prolific. His 1991 dark romantic drama ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’ was beset by delays, production problems and a spiralling budget. Despite favourable reviews and decent box-office, it was eight years till he helmed another feature – ‘Pola X’ – this time under stringent production perameters.

Apart from directing one segment of the portmanteau film ‘Tokyo’ in 2008, ‘Pola X’ was Carax’s last feature until he re-emerged four years ago with ‘Holy Motors’, a film I’ve only just caught up with. During the interim, Carax had apparently being trying to put the funding together for a large-scale English language production. ‘Holy Motors’ was conceived as a means for getting his work back onto the world stage in order to appeal to backers. Of necessity, it needed to be made on a comparatively small budget; to this end, Carax shot on digital rather than film, a decision made under sufferance.

It’s impossible to overstate how significantly these concerns infuse ‘Holy Motors’ aesthetically. The film is a testament to its own creation in a way that almost Felliniesque.

The batshit crazy narrative starts with a packed cinema auditorium, the audience gazing up in silent awe at whatever is playing out onscreen. Then we cut to a man in a hotel room near finding a hidden door in the wall. It leads to a cinema auditorium and he joins the aforementioned audience, watching the film with an admixture of disbelief and curiosity while a couple of dogs roam the aisles.

Then we’re into the narrative proper (which is kind of a relative concept, but bear with me) as Mr Oscar (Denis Lavant) leaves a very swish house and climbs into the back of a white stretch limo driven by Celine (Edith Scob). As she drives away, a black Mercedes following them closely, Mr Oscar conducts an urgent if somewhat non-specific telephone conversation which suggests that he’s some kind of businessman or consultant, an intimation compounded when Celine tells him he has nine appointments.

The rest of the film follows him (and Celine, and indeed the car which finally becomes a character in its own right) through the streets of Paris during a day and a night as he undertakes said appointments. It becomes clear from the first that he ain’t no kind of businessman! In fact, the cavernous space of the back of the limo is revealed as a mobile make-up and effects studio. Mr Oscar emerges at his first port of call in the guise of an old woman, bent double, and proceeds to beg on the street. In this endeavour, arguably the easiest logistically and the least dangerous – either physically or emotionally – of his appointments, he is watched over by two bodyguards who unfolded from the Merc. Later, when Mr Oscar is variously fulfilling the roles of kidnapper, hitman and gangster, the bodyguards are nowhere to be seen. It seems to be a comment on the precariousness of filmmaking, particularly for the auteur; the big men in the suits are there when you’re rattling the begging bowl, but you’re on your own for the rest of it.

There’s more than an implication of auteurism vs the mainstream when Mr Oscar at a a studio that looks more like a factory (I really don’t need to point out the obvious here, do I?), dons a motion-capture suit and is put through his paces by a stentorian offscreen voice. He runs, jumps, fires a weapon and engages in a bizarrely choreographed sex scene (a cutaway reveals that the CGI being layered over it depicts two monsters fucking).

The aesthetic irrelevance of modern cinema – digitally shot; soulless; a product – is emphasised when a mysterious character who might be Mr Oscar’s controller or maybe just a film critic shows up in the back of the limo and observes that Mr Oscar is getting “tired” and quizzes him on why he still does the job. “The beauty of the act,” comes the response, albeit with a caveat that most people “don’t see the cameras anymore”. (A comment on multi-media? A description of the mainstream audience as guzzlers of product with no appreciation of craftsmanship?)

Later, a low-key appointment has Mr Oscar taking the role of a young girl’s father, driving her home from a party and growing angry at his investment of time and money (“we stayed in Paris for your first party”) in what was intended as an encouragement of her social skills, only for the girl to lock herself in the bathroom in a fit of self-consciousness. She should have been more “easy-going”, he admonishes her, and got the same response from boys that the popular girls do. As parental advice goes, it sets a new level in inappropriate. As a metaphor for Carax’s own disappearance from the scene (“you could be more easy-going” now reading as “you ought to pursue more commercial projects”), it’s bluntly effective. And Carax wittily points up the intellectual pointlessness of him trying to make a generic mainstream film with a series of genre deconstructions – in particular, the existential cool of Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic crime movies is mercilessly subverted.

Genre riffs are in bountiful supply during the first half. Proceedings halt for a weird intermission featuring a musical number staged in what I can only describe as an accordion off. Then Carax gets Mr Oscar back into the limo and the limo back onto the streets and the entire tone of ‘Holy Motors’ changes. Melancholy pervades. Mr Oscar’s guises make him look increasingly older. An encounter with the enigmatic Eva (a career-best Kylie Minogue) takes Mr Oscar through the rubble-strewn abandonment of a once-great edifice (again, I don’t need to spell it out, do I?), as events move towards a mournfully inevitable conclusion. Whether Eva is Mr Oscar’s ex, his opposite number or merely a wistful fiction is, as much anything on offer here, open to interpretation. Ditto the meaning of the antepenultimate scene – Mr Oscar’s final appointment – which is rich in the imagery of regression.

As for the absolute final scene, and its implications regarding the film’s title, I wouldn’t dream of giving anything away. It’s an audacious sign-off, borderline silly, and I’m filled with amazed bewilderment that Carax even thought he could get away with it. That he actually does is something to embrace delightedly.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Eye in the Sky

A joint UK/US intelligence operation headed by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is surveilling a safe house in Nairobi where high-ranking members of a terrorist cell – including radicalised nationals from both countries – are meeting. A remote control drone disguised as a bird provides insufficient coverage, so Kenyan agent and man-on-the-ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is dispatched to get as close to the property as possible, where – under the noses of militia with short-tempers and itchy trigger-fingers – he deploys an even smaller drone, this one resembling an insect, and manoeuvres it into the house. Intel confirms the presence, in particular, of radicalised UK terror suspect Susan Danford (Lex King), whom Powell has been tracking for over half a decade. In Whitehall, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), Powell’s superior, talks Members of Parliament Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northman (Monica Dolan) and Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe) through the operation in real-time. The intended outcome is the apprehension of Danford.

Then the perameters change. Footage of suicide bombers assembling explosive vests are transmitted from the house and Powell seeks Benson’s authorisation to use deadly force. Benson asks for ministerial approval. American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and observer Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) stand-by to deploy a missile from their aptly-named Reaper drone. When Gershon notices a young girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling bread at a stall close to the safe house, Watts questions Powell’s now-approved executive order. What follows is a succession of political wrangling as everyone from Woodale to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) try to disengage themselves from involvement and/or responsibility. Meanwhile, US politicos – including White House advisor Jillian Goldman (Laila Roberts) and the Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) – advocate an expedient pro-bombing outcome.

The poster for ‘Eye in the Sky’ trumpets an appreciative quote from The Times: “a tense, morally complex and extremely prescient thriller”. Tense, yes – Gavin Hood’s direction is unobtrusive and economical, establishing four or five key locations and a hierarchy of tense interrelationships, and never losing sight of any single character’s part in the unfolding drama. Prescient, yes – this is the kind of stuff that earns that hoary old “ripped from the headlines” epithet (albeit from the headlines of The Daily Mail: everyone in the safehouse, regardless of nationality, is a terrorist because of religion; Danford’s backstory is basically “she became radicalised after hanging around mosques”. ‘Eye in the Sky’ is horribly racist and Islamphobic.)

But morally complex? Don’t make me fucking laugh. The script presents those inside the safe house as an immediate and credible threat and throws in a specious line about an inability to engage them on the ground; therefore the drone strike is a foregone conclusion. People are shown passing by or standing guard outside the safe house throughout the film; they will almost certainly be killed or badly injured – but this, too, is a foregone conclusion and the script (by Guy Hibbert) clearly doesn’t care about them. The morality of the act itself is never debated – drones find bad people so they can be killed and this is a good thing is the intellectual starting point from which the film proceeds – and what we’re left with is a bit of theorising on acceptable levels of collateral damage and how the death or serious injury of a child might be used by either side in terms of PR/propaganda.

Scenes of parliamentary pass-the-parcel play out like an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ without the jokes, while the will-Alia-sell-all-the-bread? moments come off like a badly done Hitchcock homage; they serve to weaken any serious considerations the film might have traded in. Ditto the obvious attempts at humour, such as Benson’s fish-out-of-water mission to buy a present for his daughter or the Foreign Secretary taking urgent calls while entrenched on the toilet with food poisoning – perhaps these scenes were intended as a counterbalance to all the serious business, but they just come off as risible.

Sad to note, too, that the performances are generally lacklustre. Rickman’s is phoned in and it’s a genuine tragedy that ‘Eye in the Sky’ is his swansong. Dolan seems to think she’s still in character from ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Glen seems like he popped in between takes on ‘Game of Thrones’ and had his mind on other things. Mirren is good, but somewhat long in the tooth to be a serving member of the armed forces. Paul and Fox play well off each other, small glances between them communicating a world of doubt while they still function within the chain of command. Abdi does the best work of the ensemble, in no small part due to the fact that his is the only character who actually has an emotional investment, by dint of proximity, in Alia’s fate. Had the film played out entirely from his perspective in the danger zone, rather than on wall mounted screens and laptops viewed by overpaid right-wingers in the safety of their offices, it could have been the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ of the post-9/11 age. As it is, it’s a sixth form debate wrapped around a shiny, phallic bit of drone porn.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Midnight Special

All ‘Midnight Special’ had to do to earn itself a pass from The Agitation of the Mind was simply be good. That might sound like a fatuous statement, but believe me ‘Midnight Special’ could easily have been a disaster. Given the current climate of mainstream American cinema, it would have been all too easy for ‘Midnight Special’ to be terrible. Consider this synopsis: a young boy exhibiting otherworldly powers is hunted by the government (who want to weaponise him) and a religious cult (who see him as a shortcut to the rapture); his estranged parents and a small coterie of sympathisers set out on a desperate odyssey to protect him. Now consider the material in the hands of Michael Bay: flashy effects work and soulless violence. Or Neill Blomkamp: grimy effects work and nihilistic violence. Or J.J. Abrams: lens-flare-saturated effects work and sub-Spielberg mawkishness.

Fortunately, ‘Midnight Special’ was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the man behind 2012’s sublime rites-of-passage genre ‘Mud’, and he brings to the table every plus point of that film: the confidence to foreground character and allow a slow-burn atmosphere to develop in its own good time; an acute sense of place and the ability to demonstrate in visual terms how character and location interact; a nuanced understanding of the fragility of innocence and the terrible things that lurk behind the wonders of an unexplored environment; the complex dynamics of familial relationships; a heartfelt empathy with outsiders; and a facility, as director, to elicit pitch-perfect performances, particularly from younger cast members. 

Subject of which, step forward Jaeden Lieberher as Alton Meyer, the young lad at the heart of the story. He gives a performance far beyond his years, utterly convincing through every stage of Alton’s character arc. I could say more, but I want to keep this review devoid of spoilers. ‘Midnight Special’ hasn’t been heavily trailered or advertised and in one respect this is a good thing as it lets the audience discover the film on its own terms, but in another is unfortunate as it will, in all likelihood, come and go from multiplex screens within only a week or two, a small but brilliant film unceremoniously cleared out to free up as many screens as possible for ‘Captain America: Civil War’. Which is why I urge anyone reading these pages to catch ‘Midnight Special’ immediately. Don’t let the opportunity to see it on the big screen slip through your fingers. I am convinced that this film is destined for cult classic – if not outright modern classic – status.

Nichols’ script fleet-footedly dodges every possible cliché or hint of melodrama; what could have been an unholy conflation of ‘Firestarter’, ‘Super 8’ and ‘Red State’ emerges as an uncompromised artistic statement. The narrative begins in media res; a steady accretion of detail fills in backstory, interrelationships and the full context of what’s at stake. Nichols structures much of the first half as a road movie/on-the-run thriller. But without ever sacrificing the finer nuances of his story for the sake of obvious thrilleramics. Which isn’t to say he can’t stage a shockingly sudden shoot-out or a gripping car chase when the moment requires it. Another analogue with ‘Mud’: that film’s final act where the ‘Stand By Me’-style poignancy yields to a scene of joltingly edited bit of gunplay that gets its Peckinpah funk on.

The twin antagonists of ‘Midnight Special’ – state and religion – are obvious targets, but Nichols refuses to trivialise them or score cheap points. The religious cult are treated as stoic types who are convinced they are right, but function as a community in their own right. They aren’t slavering fanatics, demented extremists or lascivious hypocrites; even when they stage their last gasp attempt at kidnapping Alton, force is used sparingly and human doubts are all to evident behind their desperate actions. Likewise, the government/military types emerge as people doing a job instead of jargon-grunting hard-asses.

Every aspect of ‘Midnight Special’ – right up to its gorgeously realised final reel flight of fantasy (a phrase I use as recommendation not pejorative) – is grounded in reality. Its vision of Americana comprises motels, gas stations, small towns and vast swathes of open country. The openness of its road movie elements is in constant counterpoint to the intimacy of its character dynamics and the tense inevitability of what its main characters are fleeing from.

Visually, the film is precise, focused and incredibly well thought-out (its palette of nocturnal landscapes and low-lit interiors gradually cedes – in a way that’s inextricably bound up with the narrative – to the ethereal glow of the magic hour and finally the stark absolute of daylight. Adam Stone’s cinematography is something I want to write a love-letter to. Ditto David Wingo’s score. Acting-wise, I’ve already hailed Lieberher; Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Sam Shepherd and Adam Driver – all damn good actors – deliver effectively restrained performances. Kirsten Dunst is as good as I’ve ever seen her: a late-in-the-game scenes requires her to go from buttoned-down pragmatism to awestruck; and with one piercing look that combines woundedness, stupefaction and something of the transcendental, she pulls off a moment of cinematic alchemy.

In fact, you can apply that description to Nichols as regards his achievement with the film entire. ‘Midnight Special’ is a riveting, enigmatic, thought-provoking and ultimately beautiful work of cinema. It may well be the best American film of the year.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’ is no classic. Let’s be completely honest about that. It’s as flawed as ‘Man of Steel’ was. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The things that don’t work – in particular matters pertaining to Lex Luthor – are hugely awful. The things that do work – in particular matters pertaining to Diana Prince – are as iconic as any fanboy could wish for. The film is a mishmash, and narratively wonky. But does it deserve the outpouring of hatred that the critics have almost unanimously delivered? In my humble opinion, no.

Which isn’t to say that, having emerged from the cinema with a general feeling of I enjoyed that more than I thought I would, I’m going to fashion this review into not just an apologia for ‘B vs S’, but reappraise it as a misunderstood classic of the genre. No, sir. It would be remiss of any reviewer to gloss over the film’s problems, just as it’s lazy of the majority of them to join in the hurling of brickbats.

In the interests of objectivity and balance, let’s acknowledge the faults. First and foremost, the characterisation of Lex Luthor is terrible, partly because Jesse Eisenberg is miscast but mostly because the script (a) gives him some of the most thankless dialogue any actor could find himself saddled with, and – more problematically – (b) fails in establishing any credible motivation for his increasing sociopathic behaviour. And, no, his oft-repeated variations on a theme of man’s victory over God doesn’t really cut it since there’s no moment in his character arc that leads him to this mindset. In fact, he doesn’t even have a character arc. It’s as if the first script conference settled on Lex Luthor as villain based on the rationale that everyone knows he’s the villain anyway so let’s just wheel him onstage and give him villainous things to do and we won’t need to bother with any of that tedious exposition business.

Likewise, the titular Batman/Superman conflict is predicated on very little. Sure, there’s the effective opening sequence where the finale of ‘Man of Steel’ is restaged from Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck)’s perspective as he navigates rubble-strewn and dust-choked streets in an attempt to facilitate his employees’ evacuation while Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod twat each other in an orgy of city-wide destruction and wait a fucking minute, since when exactly was Wayne Industries based in Metropolis? So, yeah, the ultimate superhero anti-hero, a man who was wreaked his fair share of havoc in order to take down bad guys, suddenly goes all antagonistic on Superman because he wreaked havoc in order to take down a bad guy. 

Meanwhile, Clark Kent pursues a media campaign against Batman for little other reason that it gets him off the sports desk. Though why he spends his time at the office getting all moody and embittered when he’s shacked up with the uber-foxy Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is anybody’s guess. Ditto why Lois continually puts her life in danger chasing down stories when she’s just as loved-up herself.

Finally: the flashbacks/dream sequences. They’re piss-poor, on both a conceptual and aesthetic level. Really, really piss-poor.

And if you took ‘B vs S’ on the 500 words above, the critical kicking would be easy to understand; in fact, you’d probably feel like grabbing a burning touch and allaying yourself with the village lynch-mob. But said course of behaviour would leave one blind to the pleasures of the film. To whit:

Ben Affleck as Batman. I’ll cop a guilty plea, right here and right now, to face-palming and groaning when I heard the news of Affleck’s casting. And by the same chalk I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong. Trudging through the metaphorical treacle of a script that can’t even establish a fundamentally plausible motivation for his character, Affleck nonetheless knocks it out of the park in his portrayal of a Batman who is middle-aged, world-weary and descending into an embittered psychosis. This is a not just a Batman who, prior to the titular stand-off, has to force himself through a masochistic training regime and build an armoured suit that it’s effortful even to walk in (in fact, there’s something about seeing the un-suited-up Bruce Wayne pounding at a truck tyre with a sledgehammer that presents an anti-iconography: the training montage actually strips a superhero down to a new personal low), but Affleck is just as acute in his characterisation of Bruce Wayne, showing a jaded multi-millionaire going through the motions of what society expects of him; even the playboy lifestyle and womanising seems forced, to the point where Alfred sneers at him that there’s little hope for a next generation. 

Subject of whom: Jeremy motherfuckin’ Irons. Hot on the heels of his fantastic turn in ‘High-Rise’, he reinvents Alfred to his own specifications within seconds of appearing onscreen. Retaining the Jeeves-like pragmatism of the character’s previous incarnations, Irons adds a level of barbed irascibility and the result is magnificent. In fact, I’d give Irons the Agitation of the Mind “man of the match” award if it weren’t for …

… Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Introduced in oblique fashion, with much of her narrative arc and motivation remaining enigmatic for most of the running time, Gadot isn’t given much to do but look slinky and seductive as Prince and wield a sword in menacing fashion as Wonder Woman. Given the script’s total inability to treat a female character as anything other than a plot device, Gadot could easily have come adrift in the melee, her character mere eye-candy in the CGI-driven morass of the final act. But, by God, a former model who I wouldn’t have previously credited as having any claim to cinematic iconography doesn’t just make something out of nothing, she creates bona fide moments of mainstream cool.

Other plus points: Snyder’s commitment to a dark vision of the material – slammed by the critics for humourlessness – yields some genuinely striking moments: the film begins and ends with funerals (Snyder shoots funerals with the same quasi-pornographic delight that Argento at his best reserved for death scenes); Wayne’s contact with a Russian mobster takes place at a grungily ugly bare-knuckle boxing competition; Superman’s coercion into appearing at a congressional hearing is the culmination of a subplot about political showboating/careerism and is full-stopped by a hugely cynical punchline almost calculated to plug into contemporary America’s terrorism fear-factor. Snyder plays it equally dark and cynical in terms of classical allusions, throwing in Icarus, Parsifal and a painting in Luthor’s apartment that’s basically a combination of Gustav Dore and William Blake; there’s even a dream/hallucination sequence where Kevin Costner reappears as Clark Kent’s mortal step-father, staged in such a manner that short of inserting a title card reading “and my father on that sad height” the nod to Dylan Thomas couldn’t be more explicit.

And this is perhaps what ‘B vs S’ offers as an apologia for itself even in the face of its harshest critics. In an era where superhero movies – specifically those of the Marvel ilk – have come to define mainstream cinemagoing, Iron Man and Captain America might flirt around the edges of prescient storylines about the corrupting influence of power and the fear of the unknown, but you’re highly unlikely to stumble across a classical allusion or a debate on the very redundancy of heroism; whereas Snyder, carrying on the dialogue he established in ‘Man of Steel’, batters furiously and incessantly away at the very concept of the genre even as he embraces its most fetishistic excesses.